Justice Bernstein: Our court's leader sets a great example during pandemic

Richard Bernstein

Tension in Court” blared The Detroit News headline after I was accidentally muted during virtual oral arguments last week. Chief Justice Bridget McCormack apologized for the miscue, but what really happened?

A technical glitch completely beyond her control and for which there was no reason to apologize. But the chief justice was there, as she always has been, to take responsibility, to bring people together, and to lead.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein.

Back in April, my colleagues and I began hearing arguments over Zoom from our homes and offices rather than in the courtroom at the Hall of Justice in Lansing. As I started becoming more dependent on technology to help me do my job, I became more aware of the current limits of videoconferencing. Being muted during my line of questioning at oral arguments without having the ability to manually unmute myself (which all other able-bodied justices have the option of doing), even by accident, became an unfortunate reality of my circumstance.

I was left with no choice other than to explain my experience. 

Consider the contrast to our normal practice: The court crier calls out the formal “All rise, hear ye, hear ye” and my colleagues and I walk into the courtroom and sit at our assigned seats. I can feel the energy, from colleagues beside me, from the lawyers before us, and from the people crowded in the chamber. But with virtual proceedings, all I have is my phone in an empty room.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: "We judges ...  are on the front lines of what to do about this crisis."

During these unsettling times, I am inspired by a colleague who comes to the job with such enthusiasm and passion that she lifts everyone around her up. That’s not just me talking: I know the entire bench feels the same way about McCormack. We elected her chief because of her combination of academic brilliance and personal likeability. We feel fortunate to have her leading the court during this crisis.

From the beginning of her tenure, McCormack’s leadership has been focused on access and engagement — opening courtroom doors to more people while engaging the judiciary with the public so judges have a better understanding of their local communities.

With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down buildings and keeping people at home, you might be thinking the judiciary would grind to a halt. Far from it.

Fourteen unanimous administrative orders later, the third branch of government is beginning to steadily work its way back to full capacity while protecting the safety of the public and court staff. How are we doing that? By opening the doors to virtual courtrooms and remote hearings, we are providing essential services, like personal protection orders and proceedings needed to safeguard vulnerable children. About 1,000 judges and other court officers have been provided Zoom licenses so they are handling more and more work remotely.

Since the beginning of April, well over 100,000 hours of hearings have been held virtually. Just as important, those proceedings have been streamed from Zoom to YouTube so that the public and media can watch. The Supreme Court’s IT staff even developed an easy-to-use clickable map so that people can click on their county, find a judge’s courtroom and watch live proceedings.  

Another example is McCormack's work with Michigan’s Jail and Pretrial Incarceration Task Force. Working closely with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and local and state leaders, the task force developed data driven recommendations to reduce jail populations. The chief justice took those recommendations and worked with the Michigan Sheriff’s Association to provide jail administrators with guidelines for emergency measures to protect jail inmates and jail staff from COVID-19. Now, Michigan jail populations have been cut by more than half and only five of Michigan’s 80 jails have had cases of the virus.

On issue after issue, McCormack sets an example for her colleagues on the bench all across Michigan — an example of fairness, accountability and leadership to help courts do a better job serving the people and to treat everyone with dignity and respect. 

Justice Richard Bernstein serves on the Michigan Supreme Court.